The Charlotte women leaving the Yale event (Photo submitted)
The University of Charlotte’s women’s program is just over two years old, which isn’t to say it’s completely lacking in history. The 49ers traveled to the Yale Golf Course in their inaugural season, and when they came back last week, it was to take care of unfinished business.
In New Haven, Conn., as Charlotte head coach Holly Clark said, “all the fall feels are there and the golf course is incredible.” It routinely tops lists of best university courses. But there was something else, too. In October 2017, the Yale Women’s Intercollegiate was just Charlotte’s third tournament ever
. The team was fifth entering the final round before it got cancelled because of weather. Clark’s players, then a full group of freshmen, begged to go back.
There is such a thing as wanting it too much. Fast forward two years, and Charlotte was still searching for that program-first team title.
“I don’t know if they wanted it so bad coming out of the gate,” Clark said. “They’d played well the first two tournaments and had been playing well. A lot of times, you just can’t get out of your own way when you want something so bad.”
An opening 15-over 298 was uncharacteristic for a Charlotte team that had placed second at the Mercedes-Benz and fifth at the Mason Rudolph (two major events) to start the season. It put them nine shots off the pace.
Charlotte buckled in, shaved 13 shots off its opening score and rallied from 12 shots back in the final round with a closing 4-under 280. Then they waited.
Here’s the twist: Charlotte hadn’t even played with the leading groups in the final round because they had to hustle to the airport to catch a flight home. Clark knew that if her players competed with each other, the rest would fall into place. Junior Ellinor Sudow, the No. 3 player in the lineup at the start of the week, brought in the best score, a bogey-free 68 to tie junior teammate Ashley Fowler for fourth overall. This team is like that – Clark never knows who will be her No. 1 player or her No. 5 player from week to week.
“We’re driving to the airport and they finalized everything and update the live scoring and we had won and I about wrecked the car,” Clark said of the way that day ended.
There’s no traditional trophy photo, but there’s cell phone footage of the two team vans motoring down the highway with Charlotte players screaming back and forth through open windows, celebrating a maiden team title in a way that will certainly be retold many times in the history of this program.
With this team, Clark knew she had the rare opportunity to shape something big from the start. She approached the golf-team experience as being more than just about golf. The first year was about accountability. This fall, Charlotte reached a place where they could address the small details.
“When it comes down to it, the little things are what make the big things happen,” she told her team.
Clark won’t let her players live in a bubble. Playing at Charlotte means attending weekly get-togethers the coach calls “get reals.” Sometimes it’s talking about the importance of sun protection in an outdoor sport, and sometimes it’s about eating well or how to do laundry.
“When they come over to the house, I don’t hesitate to put them to work,” Clark said, even if that means changing a diaper on Clark’s son.
Roughly 170 miles north, Carol Robertson, has taken a similarly thoughtful approach to strengthening a start-up Virginia Tech program these past five years, even if it doesn’t extend to diapers. While Charlotte was winning in Connecticut, Virginia Tech was wrapping up co-medalist honors in-state at the Princess Anne Invitational.
Robertson’s “get-real” moment came the night before the final round. Virginia Tech had struggled to take advantage of big moments in its first few seasons. Most notably, the team has reached NCAA Regionals the past two years, and in May of 2017 in Austin, Texas, the Hokies were inside the cut to advance to the NCAA Championship with one round left before fizzling out on the final day. They finished 10th, but only six teams advance.
So at Princess Anne Country Club in Virginia Beach, Va., Robertson encouraged her team to call a spade, a spade.
“We just tried to lay it out, say it out loud,” she said.
After a shaky start to the first round, Virginia Tech concentrated on going blow-for-blow with LSU, a team that started the day five shots ahead. The Hokies lost six shots to LSU just on the 16th hole, a short but tight par 4. Still, they had done enough that by the time Tech junior Emily Maher came down the 18th hole, the two teams were tied.
Maher closed out a bogey-free 65 with an up-and-down for par from 50 yards out. The teams shared medalist honors.
Earlier in the season, Maher, the woman of the match in Virginia Beach and also the tournament champion, was voted by her teammates to join senior Jessica Spicer as co-captain. Before the Princess Anne Invitational, Maher was also voted to carry an honorary team bag.
The Virginia Tech student body includes a large cadet population. Pylons in the center of the campus are etched with the name of every Hokie grad killed in the line of duty. U.S. Navy Ensign Sarah Mitchell, a 2017 Tech graduate, was the first female to be added to the pylons after she was tragically killed during a 2018 training accident in the Red Sea.
This season began with a team meeting during which Mitchell’s mother skyped in to tell players about her daughter. There is certain criteria to be chosen to honor Mitchell by carrying the golf bag with her name on it. Robertson likes that this tradition helps her team remember how lucky they are to do what they do.
“We get to travel and play golf and represent our school,” Robertson said.
There is still a formula to do it well. For Robertson, it’s a tough balance to strike, playing a schedule that will test your players without beating them up. Robertson sums this up succinctly: “We can’t hide from the ACC.”
“If we play a tough schedule all year long, when we get to ACCs while it still may be tougher, we know what to expect,” Robertson said. “We know what is the standard to come out of a tournament and be successful. It has helped them grow rapidly because we have constantly been surrounded by All-Americans, tournament wins, team wins.”
Now, Virginia Tech knows that feeling first-hand.
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HOUSTON LOVES COLE HAMMER:
Keep an eye on the PGA Tour’s Houston Open this week, as Cole Hammer, a Texas sophomore and U.S. Walker Cupper, tees it up on a sponsor exemption. Hammer grew up in Houston, so playing in his hometown PGA Tour event will be a nice bit of symmetry for the 20-year-old.
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TOURNAMENTS TO WATCH
St. Augustine Amateur, St. John’s Golf Club, St. Augustine, Fla., Oct. 11-13
Some of the best players to come out of the Southeast etched their name on this trophy during their college years, including Auburn’s Brandon Mancheno, former Florida State player Jack Maguire, former Auburn player Blayne Barber and former Oklahoma State player Peter Uihlein.
Stanford Invitational, Stanford University Golf Course, Palo Alto, Calif., Oct. 11-13
A good opportunity to see how the best in women’s college golf stack up (particularly the best on the West Coast) and who gets to pose with Condoleeza Rice at the end.
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TWEET OF THE WEEK: How about that crystal?